Sunday, 31 May 2015

Saved by the bill...(23/05/2015)

I have been neglecting a few birding sites in Penang of late and so, I decided to head south this time to Bukit Panchor State Park. This locality used to house quite a number of lowland forest species but it has deteriorated tremendously in terms of bird life. To be honest, the only reason why I still visit this place is hoping to find something short of a miracle - the Giant Pitta. But even that hope is now diminishing. During the past two visits, I only managed to shoot one single bird respectively. For this trip, I ended up empty handed and after two hours of trekking through the forest, I decided to move on to another locality. As I was about to reach the car park, I could hear an emcee making announcements and music been blasted at a decimal that would even drown out the far-carrying territorial call of the Great Argus. By the way, this used to be the only place in Penang where this spectacular pheasant occurs. Only God knows what other events go down at this state park and how frequently. I am not saying these events are bad but if you are going to hold them amidst the wonders of nature, show a little appreciation and respect. If not, why bother to hold them at such a locality in the first place? 

I was in a foul mood when I left Bukit Panchor and since I was in dire need of some quality birding time to get over this state of mind, one birding site came to mind immediately - Air Hitam Dalam. It was past mid morning when I finally arrive and after greeting a couple of birding friends at the car park, I decided to head to the elevated boardwalk. 

The striking colours of the Black-and-red Broadbill stood out like a sore thumb even from a distance. I slowly inched my way closer. Much to my delight, it was unperturbed by my approach and went about its business. The magic of Air Hitam Dalam prevailed yet again and I was rewarded with an encounter of a lifetime with this exceptional avian beauty. 

The encounter started off with the broadbill very close but unfortunately, in very strong backlight.

I made a request, as politely as I possibly can, for the broadbill to shift to the other side of the boardwalk where the lighting was better. Astonishingly, it obliged. Now, that's a good girl!

This broadbill is relatively sluggish and it tends to move about at a leisurely pace. During my observation, it foraged along every level of the forest from the undergrowth to the canopy.

When it has an insect prey in sight, it steps up a gear and goes into overdrive. Due to the lighting conditions, most of my images of it devouring its prey were blur and soft. All except for this one, that is. 

Eventually, the broadbill moved deeper into the forest and out of sight. I tried to make amends for ignoring the other species that came along during my time with the broadbill and it included notable species like the Blue-winged Pitta and Streak-breasted Woodpecker. But in life, sometimes you only have one shot and you have to seize the moment because you might not have a second chance. A female Ashy Tailorbird that was busy preparing for the breeding was very little compensation. 

The colour of the native Green Crested Lizard can certainly catch your attention...

If not for his deafening territorial calls, I would not have noticed this male Asian Koel that was perched slightly lower than usual. Head on, this cuckoo was hidden from sight but from the side, I managed to find a less obstructed angle to capture his images. This is certainly one bird that you hear more often than you see and I am happy with this encounter. 

At the rear car park, the female Mangrove Blue Flycatcher was venting out her frustration of being ignored the entire morning from an open perch. When all else fails, the 'in-your-face' approach will not...

Air Hitam Dalam has an under-utilized canopy walk. It is nothing compared to the behemoth structure at Sungai Sedim and probably about ten meters above ground and one hundred meters long. I have only been on this canopy walk a couple of times since it was built. I wanted to capture some shots of this educational forest from a different perspective. My godfather frequently reminds me to include shots of habitats and other things in my blog as it will make it more interesting. 

And guess who was also enjoying the view from the canopy walk area. If I did not know any better, I swear the broadbill was following me around this time and not the other way round...

Again it was exceptionally tame and comfortable in my presence and looking absolutely gorgeous even with a loose feather sticking out from its crown. 

For the second trip in a row, I was blessed with the opportunity to observe and enjoy this fascinating bird at such close quarters. To wrap things up for this time, here is one last image of the broadbill. 

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Oh, what a bill! (16/05/2015)

I woke up to the sound of the alarm on my iPhone and the rhythm of the falling rain on the roof. I was in a solemn mood as I contemplated on the fate of my birding plans for today. By the time I got myself ready, the rain almost dwindled to a stop and the dawn chorus started to fill the surrounding areas of my humble abode. Although the chorus consisted mostly of the bubbly calls of the ever-common Yellow-vented Bulbuls, it was music to my ears and all the motivation I needed to head out the door for my next birding adventure. The hilly forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah was the choice location this time and it was a beautiful morning there unlike the gloom weather back home in Penang.

A handsome male Rufous-winged Philentoma was busy establishing his territory from the lower storey of the forest with his mournful disyllabic whistle. As confiding as he may be, the poor lighting condition was simply too much for my gear to overcome and I had to settle for these slightly mediocre images.  

Before I started bird photography, I would be absolutely delighted to be able to record three species of Trogons on a single trip. A female Red-naped Trogon provided flitting glimpses as she moved along the canopy level but I did not have the chance to even focus my camera on her. This female Scarlet-rumped Trogon, on the other hand, was sitting still for a prolonged period of time but there was only a narrow gap among the foliage to photograph her.

It was an all-ladies affair for the trogons as the third and final species was also a female. The female Diard's Trogon is one of the most striking of all the female Trogons. She was calling from deep within the forest when our paths crossed. Almost at eye level, it would have been a reasonably good shot if she was just a little closer. None of the trogon images today were good enough by any standard and I cannot help but to feel a little disappointed.

The Orange-backed Woodpecker is probably the largest woodpecker you will get to encounter here at Sungai Sedim. The male of this species is also one of the most vibrantly coloured woodpeckers in Malaysia. Usually vocal by nature, this woodpecker is conspicuous whenever it is present. However, good photographic opportunities are not easy to come by. Take this male for example. He stopped just long enough for me to take a single shot before he disappeared back into the forest.

Apart from game birds, only two other birds actually walk on the forest floor in Malaysia. One is of course the enigmatic Malaysian Rail-babbler and the other, the Black-capped Babbler. The former is on my list of birds that I need to shoot before my time on Earth is done but no such luck today. It was the latter and it is nevertheless, a bird that I would love to shoot as well. I anticipated the path that the bird will take and waited at a slightly more open area of the undergrowth. However, instead of the babbler, this butterfly came along and happily alighted not too far from where I was lying in wait.

One of the most widespread and adaptable birds in Malaysia is the White-rumped Munia. Its habitat ranges from the paddy fields of the lowlands to the primary forests of the mountains. With such an impressive range of habitats, it comes as no surprise that the population of this little seed-eater is doing well. This lone individual was foraging on a small tree as I was making my way back to the car park. It was already midday and I was drenched to the bone in my own sweat and dripping blood from multiple leech bites on my legs. I guessed I had enough of birding along forested trails for the day.

With the weather still holding well, I decided to do some afternoon birding at Air Hitam Dalam in mainland Penang. This locality is now probably the hottest spot for bird photography. Even at this hour, I was greeted by a few birding friends at the car park area. I did not linger at the car park though. I wanted to see if anything was about from the stretch of elevated boardwalk that cuts through the swamp forest. To come across a confiding Black-and-red Broadbill just beyond the boardwalk was more than I could ever wish for. In birding, sometimes wishes do come true…

Unlike my previous encounter, it seemed like the broadbill was not going anywhere soon. And neither was I, naturally. It foraged, preened and danced among the foliage of a particular group of trees in the vicinity. As for me, I made myself comfortable and soak in the moment. And of course, took as many photos that this amazing and adorable creature would allow me to.

The two-toned bill of this species is really something else. Just look at it. It is turquoise on the top and yellow on the bottom. All the other broadbills have one-toned bills. There is no other bird in Malaysia that has a bill like that. The very first time I saw the Black-and-red Broadbill, it was along the lower slopes of Cameron Highlands. Only part of the head was visible but one good look at the bill and its identity was revealed.

The lighting conditions put my gear and my photo-taking abilities to the test. The dense foliage was another major hindrance as most of the time, the broadbill was slightly obstructed. But an up close and personal encounter like this is somewhat of a novelty to me. So, almost the entire afternoon was dedicated to the broadbill and it was time well-spent indeed.

A male Ashy Tailorbird did wander close to where I was observing the broadbill. By then it has been more than an hour and I could managed to drag myself away from the latter and shower the tailorbird with some attention.

This is a picture of true bliss and contentment. A Collared Kingfisher indulging in a late afternoon sunbath.

A walk along the river trail produced nothing much but this flying shot of the resident Brahminy Kite. This common but striking raptor wrapped things up for this time and it was another rewarding excursion courtesy of a couple hours of sheer birding pleasure with a confiding broadbill at my favourite site in Penang.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Rainy days are back (10/05/2015)

There is one thing about enjoying the wonders of Mother Nature and that is you have to take whatever she decides to offer you in your stride. The southwest monsoon has commenced and rainy days are back in western Peninsula Malaysia. Lightning is the last thing you want when you set off on any birding trip especially one with a foreign guest. Billy is his name and he hails from Ireland. With the weather starting to turn against us, our best bet would be Air Hitam Dalam in mainland Penang. This locality has yet to disappoint even in the gloomiest of weathers. A few mischievous Abbott's Babblers were the first to greet us upon our arrival at the car park.

Billy is no stranger to this land as it is his third visit to Malaysia. In fact, he has been to every continent on Earth to photograph wild birds. Penang is just part of this time's 6-week birding adventure to Southeast Asia. I feel proud that Penang is in his list birding sites. It looks like my home state is starting to gain more recognition among the international birding community.

The Olive-winged Bulbuls performed admirably today and it was much to Billy's delight because this species is new to him. It was about then the first rays of the sun managed to pierce through the rain clouds. And the magic of Air Hitam Dalam began to weave its way into the heart of my foreign guest.  

Loud and large, the Stork-billed Kingfisher certainly made its presence felt. This species is always a favourite among foreign birders and it is not difficult to see why.

Most birders and bird photographers alike will have a wish list when they go for a birding vacation. The Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher happens to be in Billy's. And if there is any place where you are almost guaranteed to see this species, it will be Air Hitam Dalam.

The Black-and-red Broadbill teased our camera sensors from the dense foliage of the canopy level. So did the Streak-breasted Woodpecker. Fortunately, we managed a few reasonable shots of the latter. Well, one of us did anyway and it was not me.

When the noon hour was at hand, we decided it was time for lunch. On route to satisfy our hunger, we made a stop at the bee-eater colony in Penanti. At this time of the year, the Blue-throated Bee-eaters will be the star attraction of this modest little birding site. These aerial hunters provided a memorable performance and this species also happens to in Billy's wish list. The overcast sky was a blessing in disguise as we were able to experience the bee-eaters without the harsh lighting of the midday sun.

The arrival of the rain ended our photo session with the bee-eaters. A nearby eatery provided lunch and a place to wait out the rain. When the rain started to ease, we did a little detour for the roosting Barred Eagle-Owl behind the Kulim Hi-Tech Park before heading to Sungai Sedim in Kedah for the afternoon session of birding. The owl was a lifer for Billy. So despite the obstructed view, the detour was still a good call.

When we reached the entrance to Sungai Sedim, it started to pour again. Lugging loads of birding gear along a forest trail in a tropical storm should not be part of any birding tour. Reluctantly, I had to think of a contingency plan and it was back to the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. Unfortunately, the storm followed us all the way there and we had to take shelter under the roof of the public toilet at the car park. It was a cruel twist of fate when a Blue-winged Pitta suddenly made an appearance and foraged at the other end of the car park in the rain. Birding lenses, big or small, are not waterproof. And we had no choice but to enjoy the pitta from our shelter.

When the rain finally went away, so did the Pitta. We moved our car to a strategic position to use it as a hide and hoped for the Pitta to return. But it did not and we had to settle for this Brown Shrike instead. I was a little surprise to record both the Brown and Tiger Shrike at this locality today because they should have undertaken their journey back north by now. Rain is an integral part of tropical Asia and can have devastating effects on your birding plans. I guess we were lucky to still get to enjoy a rewarding one in the end.